Spring practice started on Tuesday for the Michigan State Spartans football program, with the team practicing around 9 a.m. Afterward, MSU head coach Mel Tucker met with the media to discuss the first practice and the plan for spring ball moving forward.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker speaking to the media about the start of spring football:— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 23, 2021
“It was a good start today...I thought we put some money in the bank,” Tucker says.
“We had a good day today,” Tucker said. “It was a good start, I thought we put some money in the bank. In our out-of-season conditioning program, our Spartan Training Program, we had eight weeks of running and lifting and drill work, walk-throughs and meetings. I felt like our guys did a really good job. My hat goes off to Coach (Jason) Novak and his staff. I believe a team is built in the weight room. They did a fantastic job. Our guys are all bought in for what they’re doing in the weight room, what we’re doing in nutrition with Amber (Rinestine), and we were very prepared for spring practice today.”
Tucker noted that he doesn’t necessarily feel like it is a “fresh start” for the program, but more so a normal offseason, or as he calls it “out-of-season” program. Tucker is looking to use the spring season — something he and the Spartans did not have the benefit of being able to participate in last year due to the (still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic — to make progress with his team. That means players learning, improving and getting better at their sport, while the coaches teach and inspire.
“What we’re looking for in the spring is to gain ground and get better — that’s really what it’s all about,” Tucker said. “It’s the third phase of our out-of-season, and it really sets the tone for our summer conditioning program and then we’ll roll that into fall camp. Our focus is on being best-conditioned, these are the foundations of our program, playing with great technique and fundamentals, playing smart, playing fast and playing physical. The job of a coach is to teach, motivate and develop our players. So this is all part of that process, to gain ground, trust the process, and today was a day to do that. We have 15 practices, we’re going Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays for five weeks, and we don’t have one day to waste. I felt like today we very productive, very competitive. But it’s really just one step in the process.”
With the start of spring practice, Michigan State also released its updated 2021 spring roster. Given the pandemic, all 2020 seniors had the option to return to school in 2021 with an added year of eligibility. While several Spartans did take advantage of that, there were a few obvious names missing from the roster.
The conversation quickly turned to players who have gotten a lot of playing time in the past, but seemed to have declined their sixth year of eligibility. Such players include wide receiver Laress Nelson, offensive tackle Jordan Reid, defensive back Tre Person, offensive tackle, Mustafa Khaleefah and tight end Matt Dotson.
When asked about why some of these players weren’t on the roster, Tucker didn’t give many details, but did say he and the staff supports the athletes’ decision.
“Every player has to make a decision based on what he thinks is best for him, and we support those decisions,” Tucker said. “In the first year, there’s gonna be some movement, there’s gonna be some attrition. I know that, I understand that, and we’re prepared for that, but that’s not gonna slow us down. We’re gonna do what we have to do to build our football team. The purpose of recruiting is to improve your team, just like the purpose of the (NFL) draft and free agency is to improve your team.
“So, the players that have stayed with us, they believe in what we’re doing, and they’ve bought into our culture, and they feel like this is what they want. What we’re doing in our program, what we’re teaching — our philosophy, our culture — is something that resonates with the players that are here. And that’s also what has attracted players to our program. We have a tremendous coaching staff, tremendous support staff, it’s a great university — we have a lot to sell. We’re in the building stages of something that we believe is going to be something special.”
Tucker later added that there still may be some attrition to come from the roster after spring ball, with more players potentially leaving. However, Tucker also noted that Michigan State is far from done adding players via the transfer portal, too. The Spartans have been extremely active in the portal this offseason, with 13 additions.
Later on in the press conference, when asked about any outside pressure he feels or the team feels, Tucker said that the team puts all of the pressure it needs on itself to reach the program’s goals.
“Pressure is a privilege, pressure means people care...but the amount of pressure we put on ourselves, I don’t think you can even measure it,” Tucker says.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 23, 2021
“What really is pressure?,” Tucker asked. “To me, pressure’s a privilege. Pressure means that people care, but the amount of pressure that we put on ourselves internally, I don’t even know if you can measure it. We have an experienced coaching staff, we have motivated players, and we know what the expectations are. We have our standards. We have goals. We have intrinsic motivation. I’ve never coached anywhere where the expectation wasn’t to win every game...you’re expected to win. There’s no external factor that’s going to affect our process. There’s no additional pressure. But whatever pressure we do have is a privilege, and not only do you accept the pressure and embrace it, but you also apply it.”
Tucker then said that the team approached this year’s spring season in a more normal fashion, knowing that the program would be able to participate in team activities this time around. While he said COVID-19 and the cancellation of spring ball and halt on team activities last year was “certainly a factor,” he never wanted to use COVID or lack of preparation time as an excuse for the team’s performance this past fall.
Speaking of COVID, it is still unknown if Michigan State will allow fans at the spring game, scheduled for Saturday, April 24.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration recently said that crowds of up to 20 percent of capacity at outdoor stadiums will be permitted in the state Michigan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Michigan State University will automatically resume allowing spectators back into Spartan Stadium (20 percent capacity at Spartan Stadium would be roughly 15,000 fans). The Big Ten Conference could also have a say in the matter, but did allow a limited number of fans to attend the Big Ten Tournament.
Tucker adds that a spring game that feels like a real game with fans is important for the team.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 23, 2021
“I don’t know if it’s going to be open to the fans, I hope that it is,” Tucker said. “I’d love to get the fans in there. I would like to have a game, to have a real spring game. That’s going to depend on how many players we have available at that time. You want to put the players in as many game-like situations as you can. In college, you don’t get preseason games like you do in the NFL. And so anytime you get a chance to scrimmage or play a game, you want to take advantage of those opportunities because everything that we do, we want to try to make it as game like as possible without wearing our guys out and banging them up and getting a lot of guys hurt.
“Certainly a spring game with fans, loud, buzz – I’d like to have the band out there, get the cheerleaders out there, get the mascot out there, get the whole thing going if we can, but that’s to be determined how much of that we’ll be able to do,” Tucker added. “We’ll see.”
Tucker also spoke about how the first year of his tenure was important. It was about laying the foundation and building the culture. But the second year is where he expects his team to ascend and continue to truly get better.
Tucker says there is better “connection” and “understanding” with the team and coaches heading into year two of his tenure.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 23, 2021
“The second year, you should see improvement, and that’s what it’s all about,” Tucker said. “You usually see quite a bit of improvement because the players understand what’s expected — in the weight room, and from the coaches, there’s standards and expectations. The players know the coaches a lot better, and the coaches know the players, so there’s better connection and better understanding. And you know more of what your returning players can do, which is important, because you have to do what your players can do. You have to be able to adapt your schemes on both sides of the ball and special teams to fit your players. I’ve been in situations where we’ve had tremendous success in year two, so we’ll see how it goes, but right now, our focus is just on getting better.”